May 25, 2020
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The Mobocrat's Whip

Bombay's liberal spirit is a victim of whim as Thackeray's Shiv Sena recodes the rules of city life

The Mobocrat's Whip
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Jaidev Thackeray, Balasaheb's son:
The problem is Saheb is losing touch with the ground realities in the Sena 

Shyam Benegal, Film-maker:
Why should one group decide for all? Is kissing anti-constitution? Why the hue and cry? I am surprised and alarmed.

Dilip Kumar, Actor:
Bombay is no longer India's grand metropolis. It is unbearable. But it had a very civilised ethos, framed by eminent men of letters.

Sharada Dwivedi, Historian: 
Even the british sought consensus on public structures when they built bombay. Why can't the Sena?

Nari Hira, Publisher:
The cosmopolitan character of the city is very strong and these various clamps will only alienate the Sena from the people.

Ila Arun, Singer:
Why must every second person educate me about patriotism? This, from people who cannot be consistent.

Uday Benegal, Singer:
Why does Kondke, a Sainik, evoke chaste giggles? Why target only rock lyrics? That's inconsistency.

Jehangir Sabavala, Painter:
The husain incident was political. But when a situation is volatile artists too should be cautious.

Gerson da Cunha, Ad & Theatre Personality:
Moral breast-beaters are like the nazi brown shirts. But the silent majority can organise itself.

Milind Soman, Model:
Why don't they go for the tobacco industry, a far greater threat to youth than kissing?

***

When international pop group Savage Garden performed on May 2 at the SNDT grounds in suburban Mumbai, little did the city know that the event would unleash a beast. Already stirred over the notes of a singer and the nuances of Sita, the devilry of the swashbuckling Marc Robinson was yet another Judas-like act on Indian culture. It forced the kiss-on-stage Robinson to go into hiding and serious disagreement in the channel he represents. Even as one faction of Channel V argued it was time to take the moral police headlong, their White counterparts were steadfast in their disapproval: "Marc had no business to display his individual stance against state censorship and thus endanger larger business interests."

Robinson, meanwhile, cowed down by the 'bada' din, was incommunicado. There was too much at stake—and he didn't want to be the bacon on the morality brigade's table. Already on April 27, Pakistani ghazal singer Ghulam Ali had been slighted at the hands of the Sena and on May 1, Bajrang Dal activists stormed the Mumbai residence of painter M.F. Husain reacting to his two-decade-old Sita Rescued. In seven days, between the enemy-country, the errant canvas and the egregious concert—three disparate though joint-at-the-hip episodes—the changing face of a cosmopolitan city called Bombay became ominously visible.

The finger of blame pointed straight at Bal Thackeray's rowdy Shiv Sainiks, provoked and encouraged by the Thackeray family. "I most certainly feel that there has been some kind of cultural degeneration and I feel that it has come in with the present government," opines social historian Sharada Dwivedi. Film-maker Shyam Benegal is aghast: "Why should one group decide what is good or not for us? Especially in matters of culture, and particularly taste, which has different interpretations? It seems certain biases are coming to the fore." The 17-member government-appointed scrutiny board authorised the watchdog Citizens' Organisation for Public Opinion (COPO) to hold performers and audience to the caveat—"No man, woman or child shall behave in an indecent fashion during the show, including hugging and kissing". Show organiser DNA Networks briefed the band to hold on to its shirt and tongueduring the concert. No swear words, no shirtless strut. Even as COPO justified: "Else in future we shall have everyone walking all over the Morality which the state government wants to preach".

Among those retorting "Papa, don't preach" is Gerson da Cunha of the Bombay First organisation. "Not all Sainiks, but a narrow group within is making political capital. By attacking Marc or Ali they are selecting the softest targets. Why don't they hit out at the film industry for visiting the greatest vulgarity on us? That'd antagonise its votebanks." Comparing these moral breast-beaters to Nazi Brown Shirts, da Cunha says: "The silent majority cannot speak out against violent street thugs.

But citizens can organise themselves. We have the numbers." But, cautions writer Shanta Gokhale, the Sena may well be speaking for these numbers. The average Maharashtrian believes he has been far too tolerant. "Since they love Ghulam Ali they'd disapprove of what happened. But would okay policing of rock concerts since it concerns their children's behaviour." Thackeray's blessing the Bajrangis' action—"If Husain can enter Hindustan, why can't we barge into his house"—may find a frisson of empathy among a majority that finds it difficult to appreciate an artiste's right to pluralism in art and easier to question his need to needle sentiments.

Referring to Lalbaug's Chand Shahsaheb ka dargah which houses a well donated by a Hindu tamasha group as the finest example of harmony, Dwivedi continues, "Nobody can dictate terms to the public, unless done by plebiscite, and this includes the random renaming of the city from Bombay to Mumbai or Victoria Terminus to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. The recent attempt to rename Khodadad Circle, presumably because it had been named after an Afghani god, displayed the nadir of ignorance. Can history be changed and can anyone wipe away the fact that the British built Bombay?" Protests notwithstanding, the zunkha-bhakrifying of the city has reached new heights: with Marathi signboards thrust upon peeved shopkeepers and Chief Minister Manohar Joshi making phone-in promises on TV that names like Grant Road would face the axe.

Asks Dwivedi: "Why eradicate the history of the city without asking the people? Even the so-called imperialist British made publicly available the designs of the Gateway of India and called for public opinion but when Pramod Navalkar expressed a desire to build an India Gate-akin structure at Kalaghoda, he didn't seek public opinion."

Public opinion has mattered least to a party that has gathered its moral might by muscling in on the minority—first South-Indian followed by Muslim-bashing. "The Sena began as a backlash to the overwhelming influence of outsiders. In the beginning they wanted to assert themselves, that later changed to being against others," opines Kumar Ketkar, editor, Maharashtra Times.

Subsequently, cultural terrorism which began as an innocuous part of the agenda soon rose to head it. "In the early '70s, the Sainiks almost burnt down Ravindra Natya Mandir and threatened our entire family. We were escorted to school by policemen and every visitor to our home was frisked, including the breadman," recounts Priya Tendulkar, daughter of eminent playwright Vijay Tendulkar. "Based on their reading of Sakharam Binder and Ghasiram Kotwal, the Sena felt that my father was anti-Hindu and was corrupting Indian culture. Now if a party has its roots in goondaism, the fact is not likely to change even when they assume power. And this growing intolerance is an offshoot of the ruling party's culture."

While their tolerance manifested itself in a number of ways, the pluralism of the city fell prey to the politics of populism. According to Ketkar, the saffronisation of the middle-class tilted the liberal scales. "In 1968, the Sena could not cash in on communalism but by 1987 when Ayodhya started gaining ground, so did the Sena. One would suppose that middle class support for the Sena was complete by 1992—post-Babri.

Benegal believes such catatonic reactions to imagined slights and defiance are uncharacteristic to Mumbai. "Everybody functions within his chosen area. It has yet never disturbed peace. Is kissing anti-constitutional? Why the hue and cry? I am surprised and alarmed. We live in a democracy. I find no serious logic in the establishment's entire exercise." Actor Dilip Kumar, whose acceptance of Pakistan's highest civilian award Nishan-e-Imtiaz still provokes jibes over his patriotism, rues Mumbai's fall. "It is no longer India's grand metropolis. It is more unbearable. But it had a very civilised ethos, framed by eminent men of letters." No longer. As crooner Ila Arun, affected by the decision to wind up concerts by 10 pm, asks: "Why should every second person educate me about patriotism? This from people who cannot be consistent." Concert organis-ers watch the clock, while festival loud-speakers blare on. Some Pakistani artistes are allowed, while doors are slammed on others. Singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan faced a Sena-ordered Bollywood ban for his remarks on plagiarism in India.The ban was lifted when he denied this, offering to urge Pakistan to permit Indian concerts. Actresses Somy Ali and Zeba Bakhtiar were allowed into Bollywood because they had British passports. Inconsistency is the only consistency here. Crotch-clutching Michael Jackson is on, but Def Leppard is kept off. Shaggy, like Jackson, makes it after paying obeisance to city fathers.

Has pettifogging unseated Mumbai's legendary laissez faire? Shared schoolmarm sentiments eclipse political differences. Sometime ago, the Youth Congress made Benetton withdraw its ad showing a horse mounting a mare. The Qureshi community cried foul over the line "Kasai, yahan sab kasai hain" in Priyadarshan's Sazaa-e-Kaalapani. The context, they contended, demeaned butchers. The same week Samajwadi Party did a double-take over a T-series cassette in which religious songs by Nusrat had an unacceptable protesters earned her a police case. Bhatt won their sympathy after she convinced them it was a simulated shot.

Last month, the Sena and the manch took on the "vulgar" Hindi and Gujarati plays. While Pandey courted arrest by disrupting a play titled Shayya (Bed), Marathi lyricist Santaram Nandgaonkar recranked the scrutiny board, revoking licences of several plays including Saali Poori Gharwali, Ladki Jawan Padosi Pareshan and Pati Naram Patni Garam while overhauling suggestive titles like Baiko Peksha Mehuni Bari (sister-in-law is better than wife).

Chafing at such "double standards", Uday Benegal of Indian rock group Indus Creed wonders if Sainik Dada Kondke's Andheri Raat Mein Diya Tere Haath Mein evokes just chaste giggles. "Revoke the government award instituted in Kondke's name. Ban his films with retrospective effect. Somebody, it seems, is on a power trip. Such inconsistency is dangerous. Are they banning nautanki and tamasha art?" Benegal does not buy Nandgaonkar's argument that villagers' tastes are dictated by their illiteracy. "Does it mean the illiterate is also uncultured? Don't they need more protection than us who can choose? I heard performers at concerts are ordered not to remove their shirts." And muses why the crusaders never tick off Salman Khan when his dhobi defaults.

Nandgaonkar is, in some quarters, patted on the back for his determination to sweep the stage clean of "shabby behavior that militates against Indian ethos". Pop singer Remo Fernandes, however, defends such moral policing. He points out how Indian rock groups, stooping to copy foreign numbers, also prop up their lack of talent with swear words. "Western civilisation has attendant problems of violence, drugs. There is no need to emulate these. Unfortunately, people doing that harm those among us who favour the better aspects of the West. " But half-baked strictures confound. Ila Arun mockingly proposes the government decide a code of conduct through legislation. Women in burkhas, goodbye to MTV, people shut themselves up after 9 pm, as in West Asia. Why should the government, and not the parents, tell their kids how to behave?

Says Afternoon Despatch and Courier editor Behram Contractor: "It is a matter of opinion whether our youth is getting spoilt by Western lifestyles or becoming more sophisticated. But it is for their parents to decide and correct, not the state." Industrialist Miheer Mafatlal, squeamish about any censorship that is not self-imposed, also warns "it will never work if dictated by an outside agency."

Ila Arun says these censorship norms may send the entertainment industry scuttling out of Mumbai. DNA Networks T. Venkatvardhan, who coached Savage Garden on Mumbai's new strictures (no vulgar lyrics, winding up its act by 10 pm and urging the audience to behave themselves), agrees, "These were acceptable to us. But if more rules are added, it would be impractical to bring groups to Mumbai since cities like Hyderabad are picking up."

But in its hate agenda, the Sena sets one standard for itself and another for the city: While the Thackeray-owned Drumbeat restaurant is open into the wee hours of the morning, the high court order of the midnight mark was enforced on other joints. While the Sena-backed Michael Jackson's trip to the Thackeray toilet was gushed over, teeny-boppers attending rock concerts were unceremoniously told to clean up their act. "Tell me, are you going to plant guards to keep couples on Marine Drive from kissing each other? The city has always known where to draw the line; it is the government that has exceeded all decent limits," rages Rohinton Poonawala, partner, Amp Entertainment whose 12-year Independence Rock concert at Rang Bhavan might just suffer a commercial break. Equally vocal is hunky model Milind Soman. "Even the reaction to the Tuff shoes ad was a politically motivated gimmick. This shortsighted approach alienates the youth as they can see through it. Why don't they have the guts to target the tobacco industry which is a far greater threat to youth than kissing and holding hands can ever be?"

The spillover has spread onto the pulsating art scene too. Says Jehangir Sabavala, painter: "The Husain incident was political—it had nothing to do with culture. But when a situation is so volatile, artists too have a responsibility to be more cautious in what they say and do, so that the situation does not worsen. Artistic freedom would be stifled—but today a Bombay-based artist has to restrain himself artistically for the greater good of social responsibility."

Hemmed in by self-styled sultans who have carved out the city, even the Sena hold has spun out of control. Obvious indications are the 140-odd zunkha-bhakar kendras described by a senior office-bearer of the Association of Hotelier and Restauranteers as "a big joke on small people". Basking in government subsidies, nuzzling in prime public places, the kendras, instead of dishing out food to the poor are giving out fast food and favours alike to party workers. Rues Jaidev Thackeray: "The problem is that saheb is losing his touch with the ground realities of Sena. Individual leaders have cropped up each doing his own thing. Also, the Sainiks have begun showing allegiance to individuals rather than the organisation." Thus while the city has grown, its perspectives and the people in power haven't."The Sena supremo has an extremely limited attention span and he has also run out of ideas, not that he ever had more than two or three," notes celebrated novelist Kiran Nagarkar. Fact is that the Sena has been recycling its rampage schedule. The goons who disrupted the India-Pakistan cricket match by digging up the Wankhede pitch in October 1991 are the same lot who disrupted the Ghulam Ali concert and are creating a racket over squash star Jansher Khan's trip to the city.

Grieving over the loss of the city's sporting edge, veteran sports columnist K.N. Prabhu observes: "Thacke-ray has spoken for the people of Maharashtra but he has also spoken for a lot of thugs. He has been a disappointment since he had the power to make this city into a model state." Not all have downed the peg of pessimism however. While Dwivedi believes that "Bombay has been through worse in the past 100 years and has survived", Nari Hira, head honcho of Magna Publishing Company says "the cosmopolitan character of the city is very strong and the clamps will alienate the Sena."

The changes creeping in are discouraging—in spite of the peace offerings made by Pramod Navalkar, the Sena's moral minister. "The policy of the government has not changed. It was, it is and it will always be open. After all, we want our youth to enjoy." To begin with, the Baywatch-likened Asian Beach Volleyball Championship to be held at Chowpatty Beach with swimsuit-clad participants is likely to sail through. But behind this silver lining hangs another culture cloud. Two weeks ago, the new haute-spot Fashion Cafe Bistro and Bar was visited by the police. According to a source, "Under orders from the cultural ministry, we were told that we had to change our chairs (the chair backs were in the shape of a woman's torso). Either that or they'd be confiscated and we'd be charge-sheeted." The curved chairs have been replaced by severe-lined, straight-backed ones. If the moral police have their way, the fashion cafe's new seating could be a metaphor for the new Mumbai.

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